It was the most disgusting thing I had seen. He was a westerner, middle aged, obese, with a thick moustache and wearing a bright red bowling team shirt. She was Thai, aged no more than twelve, thin, dressed in a white blouse, black skirt, knee length white socks and black pumps. It could have been a school uniform, if she had ever been to school. They sat two tables away from me, eating Big Macs and sharing a giant Coca-Cola through separate straws, but it didn’t take much imagination to guess they hadn’t got together for the feed. It was a starter, or dessert for something I didn’t want in my mind. I took another bite at my cheeseburger and realised that I was losing my appetite.
I pushed it aside, sipped at the Coke and forced myself not to stare. I shouldn’t have been shocked to see something like that in Bangkok. Men came here from all over the world to do things that would get them locked up and probably gang raped in their own countries. Unacceptable vice at home, part of the tourist economy here. But the picture crept into my head, his mounds of flesh pressing down on her fragile body. It made me feel angry, righteous, and another glance at the man told me he would be useless in a fight, easy to beat senseless. It was a stupid idea – I was in the city for work meetings and it would be mad to risk a run-in with the law – but as I nibbled at the fries and sipped the drink it wouldn’t leave me alone. The only sensible thing to do was head back to the hotel.
I stood up, made a move towards the door, and by a spiteful coincidence the man stood, his back to me, and stepped into my path. He turned his head and said a quick sorry, but waited a moment as the girl slipped out of her seat and moved towards the door. He followed her and I followed him, staring into the point between his shoulder blades. They stepped into the street and turned to the right, I turned left towards my hotel, but couldn’t resist another glance. He had taken her by the hand. I stood still and watched as they walked down the street, paralysed by the vision of a seedy hotel or back room of a bar. My head told me to walk away, but my gut told me this was a bad thing that I couldn’t shrug off. I allowed them to get about fifteen paces ahead and began to follow.
Street savvy told me it would come to nothing. They would reach a point, at a doorway or in an alley, when a man or two would allow them to pass but face me with a glimmer of violence. Then I would admit it was as far as I could go, I wasn’t Travis Bickle and didn’t want a beating or a blade in the ribs. But they crossed a couple of roads, turned right into a street lined with apartment blocks and entered the third on the right. I followed to its entrance, faced a glass door, a clean, brightly lit lobby, and the sight of the man and girl stepping into the lift. A woman appeared and brushed past me as she hurried into the street. The toe of my shoe stopped the door from closing. I entered the lobby, looked at the numbers above the lift door and saw it light up at two. I turned onto the stairs and sprinted up, reached the second floor in time to hear a click and see a door close. Then I bent over and caught my breath.
My head swirled. I wasn’t in a sleazepit, I hadn’t been confronted by a local bruiser and the closed door gave me a reason to walk away; but I knew what I had seen, still pictured the violation. I stood up and allowed my breathing to steady, wondering if there was someone around, watching for unwelcome intruders. This was a regular apartment block, but it could still contain a den of abuse. I waited for any sign that I had been noticed, heard nothing, then walked towards the door. A muffled sound came from inside, followed by a silent pause, then the scream of a little girl. I felt a flash of anger, raised my foot and kicked at the door. The lock broke on the frame, I pushed into a darkened hallway, walked towards a source of light and stepped into a brightened room. A Thai woman recoiled on a sofa, pulling two young kids towards her. The girl I had followed jumped up and darted behind an armchair. The fat guy was planted on its seat. He stared with a flicker of recognition then growled.
“What the fuck!”
I froze. My anger collapsed into a quivering realisation that I had everything wrong. I moved my lips. Nothing came out. The fat guy pushed himself out of the seat and came towards me. Embarrassment and fear forced out the words.
“I mean, I’ve seen this all wrong. I was in the MacDonalds. I saw you with the girl. I thought ….”
He looked around. The woman and young kids were still scared, but the girl stood straight and looked at me with a mixture of anxiety and anger. He stared at me and stepped forward. I braced myself for his fist in the face, but instead he pushed me into the hallway. His voice dropped.
“Yeah, I know what you thought. You thought I was the kind of sick fuck who would ….” The words disintegrated into a snarl. I found a pathetic excuse.
“It’s this place. Everyone hears stories.”
He maintained the stare. Every second was a skewer in the gut. Then he found another snarl.
“Well I’ll tell you that’s my wife and stepchildren in there.”
The humiliation increased. My self-respect crumbled.
“You think I’d ….”
There was another tortuous pause, punctuated by the sound of another child’s scream from the TV set in the lounge. Then his snarl withdrew, his expression softened.
“Yeah, OK,” he said. “It’s Bangkok.”
I wanted an immediate escape, but there was something I couldn’t ignore. I looked towards the door.
“I should pay for that to be repaired.”
“Yeah, you should.”
“I’m not sure how much it would cost.”
“Neither am I, but it’ll need doing in a hurry, so that’s more for an emergency.”
I reached into my wallet. There was plenty of cash. I removed it all but he placed his hand on mind.
“Hold on. I’ll call the building manager. He’ll give me an estimate.”
I stood back, wallet in one hand, wad of cash in the other and feeling pathetically grateful. The guy went into the lounge and said a few words to his family in Thai. I could hear a young kid whimpering. He reappeared with a phone, tapped out a number and spoke, words I didn’t understand but in a tone that made his disdain too clear. He ended the call but his phone immediately rang again. Again he replied in Thai, exchanged a couple of sentences before ending the call.
He told me to wait, stepped into the lounge and spoke to his family. When he reappeared the older girl followed, threw me a dirty look and went with him into a bedroom. I shuffled awkwardly, looked around at the broken door, swallowed at a guilty embarrassment, then moved towards the door of the lounge. I looked inside to the guy’s wife and two younger children. They had all lost interest in the TV and stared at me, the woman squeezing at the kids’ shoulders. I moved out of sight and waited a couple of minutes that felt like twenty. Then the older girl appeared, wearing a blue jacket with an elasticated waist and pink sleeves. She looked at me, glanced back to the fat guy, then pushed me towards the door. As she left an old Thai guy appeared, stared at the damage to the door, then wheezed something that sounded like an expletive. The fat guy nodded at me. They exchanged a few words that I sensed included a suggestion of kicking my arse; but then it became quieter, more measured, and I guessed they were agreeing an estimate for the repair. The fat guy spoke a figure. It seemed enormous. He noticed how my eyes popped.
“That’s baht, not dollars or pounds.”
I felt relief, then surprise that it was cheap, then remembered this was Thailand, where everyone worked cheaper. That was followed by a realisation that the guy wasn’t ripping me off. It made me feel even more guilty. I dug out my wallet and took a wad of notes, enough for the job with an extra thirty per cent, and handed it to the fat guy.
“There’s something extra there,” I said. “For your trouble.”
He stared at me without answering.
“Maybe you can buy a little treat for the kids.”
He considered for a moment.
“Maybe I will.”
I retreated a step, pushing the wallet back into my pocket, glanced at the older guy, realised he had me marked as a prize idiot, then towards the door.
“Well you can go,” said the fat guy.
I paused for a moment, moved my hand forward, then froze in the guy’s expression. No, a handshake would be downright stupid.
“I’m very sorry.”
The fat guy nodded in response. I left the apartment and restrained myself from running down the stairs.
Out in the street I quickened my step, wanting to get back to the hotel and hide, and as I reached the next corner noticed the girl. She was with two young guys, late teens in oversized T-shirts and baggy jeans, deadpan faces. I noticed she was taking something from inside her jacket and focused on her hand to recognise a solid wrap of white plastic. One of the young guys produced a wad of bank notes, much more than I had handed to her stepfather, and they did a quick exchange. In a second the package and the money had both been tucked out of sight, and all three had noticed I was passing. It didn’t take much imagination to realise I had just witnessed the trade in a seriously illegal substance. One of the young guys stepped in front of me.
“What you see!”
Fingers slid into the pocket of his jeans. A rounded strip of steel in a casing of hard plastic showed.
He eyeballed me, a silent threat in his face. Then I heard the girl’s voice. I looked around, she shook her head and the young guy stood back. I moved past him and took a final glance at the girl. She shot an expression of contempt, then raised a hand and gave me the finger.
Shit! I had witnessed a serious crime and couldn’t tell anyone. Who was going to believe someone who had kicked down the door of a family home because he had seen a man sharing Big Macs with his step daughter?
I looked ahead and made off like a scared rat.